The interesting thing about High Life is the negative space – it’s all the stuff it cleverly carves out. At some point in the future, Earth is sending young, death-row convicts to outer space to “serve science” by allowing their bodies to be experimented upon. What kind of Earth is this? We never see it. What kind of crimes are we talking about? We’re never told.
Monte (Robert Pattinson) is one such prisoner. The film’s first scene shows him alone on a space craft save for a baby – his daughter? Cut to: an undisclosed time before, when he is just one of many prisoners under the scrutiny of Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche). Ostensibly they’re gathering information on black holes, but there’s also fertility experimentation being done – and what we know and they don’t is they’re never coming back from this mission. They were never meant to.
The male prisoners masturbate alone in a ‘fuck room’ and Dr. Dibs then fertilizes the female prisoners, which makes for near-constant space miscarriages. She herself enjoys a solitary go at the fuck room, riding a contraption reminiscent of Burn After Reading’s dildo chair. She enjoys a little solo S&M, her white skin framed by the black walls, the room feeling as dark and blank as the space outside, though rarely glimpsed, must also be.
There’s a lot of silence in space; so too in Claire Denis’s High Life. It’s disorienting and confusing and filled me with dread. In contrast to Interstellar or Gravity or The Martian, High Life has very little in the way of special effects, and actually doesn’t bother much with what’s outside the walls of their ship. If you’re a fan of Claire Denis, don’t worry, she’s as inaccessible as ever – bleak, subversive, full of fleeting, nightmarish impressions.
There’s a lot of ritual in this movie but no purity – Claire Denis puts bodies through hell. Body horror? Sort of. A horrific degradation of bodies. Of consent. Of dignity. In Monte we find a different kind of prisoner, and a stubborn will to persist. There’s a special kind of stress, and madness, to be found in the voids but always Denis refers back to what these 9 represent: humanity? What does their treatment mean for the humans back on Earth, and how does it feel to be utterly forgotten and abandoned by society?